America the Beautiful

From Academic Kids

"America the Beautiful" is an American patriotic song which rivals the national anthem of the United States ("The Star-Spangled Banner") in popularity. The poem and the hymn to which it was eventually matched were first published in a church hymnal, and the song continues to be a staple of Christian services.

The words are by Katharine Lee Bates, an English teacher at Wellesley College. She had taken a train trip to Colorado in 1893 to teach a short summer school session, and several of the sights on her trip found their way into her poem:

On that mountain, the words of the poem started to come to her, and she wrote them down upon returning to her hotel room. The poem was initially published two years later, to commemorate the Fourth of July. It quickly caught the public's fancy. Amended versions were issued in 1904 and 1910.

Several existing pieces of music were adapted to the poem. The one that had been pretty well settled upon by 1910 was the hymn Materna, composed in 1882 by Samuel A. Ward. Ward had been similarly inspired. The tune came to him while he was on a ferryboat trip from Coney Island back to his home in New York City after a leisurely day summer, and he immediately wrote it down. He would died in 1903, knowing how beautiful his music was, but not knowing the national stature it would attain. Katharine Bates also knew she had something good, and thankfully saw it come to fruition, as she lived until 1929.

At various times in the century since the song as we know it was born, including during the John F. Kennedy administration, there have been efforts to give "America the Beautiful" legal status either as the national hymn, or as a national anthem equal to, or in place of, "The Star-Spangled Banner", but so far this has not succeeded. Proponents prefer "America the Beautiful" for various reasons, saying it is easier to sing, more melodic, and more adaptable to new orchestrations while still remaining as easily recognizable as "The Star-Spangled Banner." There are also those who prefer "America the Beautiful" over "The Star-Spangled Banner" due to the latter's war-oriented imagery. There are others who prefer "The Star-Spangled Banner for the same reason. While that national dichotomy has stymied any effort at changing the tradition of the national anthem, "America the Beautiful" continues to be held in high esteem by a large number of Americans.

Popularity of the song soared following the September 11, 2001 attacks; at some sporting events it was sung in addition to the traditional singing of the national anthem.

Ray Charles is credited with the song's most famous rendition. His recording is very commonly played at major sporting events, such as the Super Bowl. His unique take on it places the third verse first, after which he sings the normal first verse. In that third verse, the author was essentially scolding the materialistic and self-serving "robber barons" of her day. She urged America to live up to its noble ideals and to honor, with both word and deed, the memory of those who died for their country... a message that resonates just as strongly today.

One amusing oddity about the song is that its meter (technically "Common Meter Double" or 8,6,8,6,8,6,8,6) is identical to that of Auld Lang Syne. The two songs can be sung perfectly with lyrics interchanged.



Oh beautiful, for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.

Oh beautiful, for pilgrims' feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine ev'ry flaw;
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law!

Oh beautiful, for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
'Til all success be nobleness, and ev'ry gain divine!

Oh beautiful, for patriot's dream
That sees beyond the years!
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea!


A song as popular and familiar as America the Beautiful inevitably gets used out of its proper context or time frame, for humorous effect. As the song seems to have "always been there", it is often presented as if Christopher Columbus had written it when he arrived at the New World. Some examples:

  • There is a Far Side cartoon from 1982 (reprinted in Sherr's book) which shows Columbus nearing land, with his crew of conquistador types, and saying, "Look, gentlemen! Purple mountains! Spacious skies! Fruited plains! ... Is someone writing this down?"
  • In one of his comedy club routines in the early 1960s, Flip Wilson did a Columbus story with an African-American twist... ironically, the catchphrase repeated by Queen Isabel (an early "Geraldine") is "Chris gon' find Ray Charles!" When his Columbus sees land, he comments, "It's America, all right... just look at those spacious skies... those amber waves of grain... dig that purple mountain's majesty... I'll bet there's fruit out there on the plain!"
  • In his musical satire, The United States of America, Volume 1, Stan Freberg plays Columbus, Jesse White plays a skeptical King Ferdinand, and June Foray does Queen Isabella (mimicking Tallulah Bankhead), resulting in this bit of dialogue: [1] (
Ferdinand: Look at him in that hat! Is that a crazy sailor?
Isabella: Crazy? I'll tell you how crazy! He's a man with a dream, a vision, a vision of a new world, whose alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears, with purple mountain majesties above the Two Cents Plain . . .
Ferdinand and Columbus: Fruited!
Isabella: Fruited.

George Carlin did this version around 1970, when environmental issues were becoming a hot political topic: [2] (

Oh beautiful, for smoggy skies, insecticided grain
For strip-mined mountain's majesty above the asphalt plain.
America, America, man sheds his waste on thee
And hides the pines with billboard signs, from sea to oily sea!


Lynn Sherr's 2001 book America the Beautiful discusses the origins of the song and the backgrounds of its authors in depth. ISBN 1-58648-085-5.


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External links

  • 1913 Lyrics (
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  • A National Treasure (
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